22.1.18

BEING MUGGED BY REALITY.

Former Northeastern University president Richard M. Freeland hosts a pity-party.
Higher education leaders across the country are engaging in much hand-wringing over declining public confidence in colleges and universities. A variety of polls and surveys suggest multiple themes. Particularly prominent are findings that the value of college is declining in relation to the benefits. That reflects a belief that the cost of tuition has become excessive, combined with growing skepticism that a college degree confers economic security.

A second theme is that colleges and universities are havens for liberal ideologues whose values are at odds with those of most Americans. One recent survey found that a majority of Republicans and conservatives now think that higher education is having a negative impact on the direction of the country. A third element in the “public confidence” discussion is the perception that colleges and universities are essentially businesses, more concerned with their own well-being than with educating students or serving communities.
You can wring your hands. Or you can work the problems.

Declining value?  That's a self-inflicted problem. anybody else remember "to get a good job, get a good education" in Advertising Council television commercials and on car-cards?  Break the social contract, though, by inter alia admitting unprepared students and calling it access, then conferring diplomas on people who have trouble locating the nearest bathroom, and the only surprise is that it has taken the populace, let alone the hand-wringing leaders, so long to catch on.

Liberal ideologues whose values are at odds with those of normals?  That's not the main problem.  The main problem is that instead of being places to play with ideas and explore ramifications, higher education gives the impression of a place automatically sympathetic to the latest fever dreams of the intersectionality crowd and bent on deconstructing, nay interrogating,  anything that has emerged and demonstrated some redeeming values, whilst treating normality as a pathology.

Expense-preference behavior by administrators?  No kidding.

But Mr Freeland is not yet prepared to recognize that the old order changeth.
First, we must embrace the legitimacy of preparing young people for the workplace as part of undergraduate education. Embedded in doubts about the economic value of a college degree are perceptions that many colleges and universities, especially those that emphasize liberal education for undergraduates, do not take seriously their students’ focus on preparing for a job after graduation. There is, of course, more than a grain of truth in this perception. Champions of the liberal arts have often demonstrated disdain for the practical interests of students, and career counseling and placement offices at many colleges and universities have been neglected and marginal enterprises.
That strikes me as too narrow a perspective. Perhaps in the rarified world of the Ivies, you rack up the grades as best you can, then do an internship on Wall Street, K Street, or Capitol Hill, and then get the professional degree.  In the world where most of the higher education takes place, the selling point for a liberal arts degree is precisely to better be able to make connections, and get on the promotion track.  The practical degrees, this school of thought suggests, are also entry-level degrees.

He then invoked "disdain" a paragraph or two too early.
Second, we should reinvigorate academe’s historic commitment to preparing students for citizenship and modeling democratic values. The concern that higher education has become a liberal enclave is largely true, a reality that often reflects deeply held moral ideas that are inevitably associated with advanced learning. We can’t change that, and we shouldn’t. But we can -- and should -- change other things.

For starters, we should take seriously our mission to help students acquire the knowledge and skills to become active, informed participants in our civic life. This priority is fully consistent with our best traditions and can also counter the charge that academic values are at odds with patriotism. I have been encouraged by the civic learning movement within higher education in its various manifestations, but most colleges and universities need to be much more aggressive and explicit in advancing this long-neglected dimension of their mission. In addition, campus leaders must make it clear in every possible way, including when hiring faculty members -- as part of demonstrating their commitment to preparing students for life in a democracy -- that their institutions are open to a wide range of opinion on socially and politically controversial matters and will not let campus communities be dominated by intolerant ideologues.
I'll believe that when the various free-standing Identity Studies departments are re-integrated with the social and natural sciences and the humanities, and when the Office of Student Affairs confines its activities to provisioning and maintaining the residence halls, and when the diversity loyalty oaths disappear from the hiring and promotion packets and play a subordinate role in curriculum.

Perhaps, somewhere, Charlie (Prof Scam) Sykes is smiling.
Third, campus leaders should foreground a commitment to undergraduate education, just as hospitals, including teaching hospitals, foreground a commitment to patient care. The perception that colleges and universities have become self-interested businesses rather than institutions that serve students and communities is particularly troubling to me. I suspect many elements contribute to this perception. But among the causes may well be the de-emphasis of undergraduate education and the prioritization of research that occurred within higher education during the latter part of the 20th century, especially among the leading universities that dominate public views of our industry.

Many of the financial pressures that drive up undergraduate costs -- reduced teaching loads, expensive research facilities, financial aid for graduate students -- derive from the cost of supporting ambitious research programs that advance institutional status but are only indirectly linked with undergraduate education. The shift of emphasis toward research has encouraged faculty members to emphasize publication and grant-getting rather than teaching students, a change that subtly shifts the moral basis of academic work from serving others to advancing individual careers.

This is not intended as an argument against the importance of research and graduate education. But colleges need to make clear to the public that they are serious about teaching undergraduates -- which most people think is our primary purpose -- and do not base the price of tuition on the need to subsidize activities not clearly related to that work. I am encouraged by what I perceive to be a reassertion of concern for undergraduate teaching and learning. But colleges and universities, especially the country’s leading institutions, have a long way to go to re-establish this mission on a par with research as a widespread institutional priority.
That part of the project is more challenging, as those are also the activities that move an institution up the U.S. News league tables.  The league tables, then, take on value to the extent that universities not so recognized might place less of a value on scholarship, and take less interest in intellectually challenging their students.

The good news, dear reader, is that the people in charge of higher education might be coming around to the perspective that yes, they have a problem.  Perhaps that will give me opportunities to reflect favorably on developments in the sector.

1 comment:

David Foster said...

"First, we must embrace the legitimacy of preparing young people for the workplace as part of undergraduate education"

Given the way higher education has been marketed over the last several decades...'get a degree, get a better job, and make more money'...this is like a company selling stock in itself and, 20 years later, admitting, that 'we must embrace the legitimacy of making and profit and someday paying dividends.'

Selling something and then not making a serious attempt to deliver it is fraud, in a moral if not in a legal sense.